On this day in 1998, some of New York’s most notable names gathered in artist Jeff Koon’s Manhattan studio to celebrate the launch of William Boyd’s biography of the American abstract expressionist painter Nat Tate.
The party was held by none other than David Bowie and the art world’s finest listened attentively as he read excerpts from Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960. Tate, Bowie explained, had worked alongside celebrated artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Pablo Picasso before destroying all his work and then committing suicide. It was thus that Tate had fallen into oblivion, but now Boyd and Bowie were going to revive the reputation of this great artist.
The following week, Boyd and Bowie were due to fly to the United Kingdom for the London launch of the book. The buzz had spread across the Atlantic and British newspapers had already begun running excerpts from the book in early reviews. However, unbeknownst to both the New York party guests and the British press was the minor fact that Nat Tate had never actually existed. The book was a hoax, the launch party nothing but April Fools’ Day fun, Tate was simply an invention of Boyd, a novelist, and Bowie’s.
The hoax was good-natured fun for Boyd and Bowie, who were curious to see if they could get away with it, but many of the critics who had bought it hook, line and sinker weren’t necessarily pleased. A British journalist attending the New York party reported on knowledgeable guests claiming to be familiar with Tate’s work. He listened as they convincingly described the artist’s fascinating and tragic life.
The book, beautifully designed and presented, was indeed convincing. Boyd came up with a dramatic biography of an illegitimate boy orphaned at a young age before being taken in by a wealthy Long Island couple. He complimented the text with old photographs he had collected from junk sales and mixed in photos of Picasso and other legendary artists to provide a seemingly real backdrop as Tate’s artistic life flourished. In on the conspiracy were the famed writer Gore Vidal and Picasso biographer John Richardson. Both provided quotes describing Tate and attesting to his connection to other great contemporary artists. Vidal’s quote, which appears on the book’s cover, is particularly funny, as he describes Tate as “an essentially dignified drunk with nothing to say.”
The revelation of Boyd and Bowie’s hoax did little to stop the spread of Tate’s fame. The book has been reprinted and translated into French and German. Furthermore, a number of television documentaries dedicated to the mythical artist have aired.
Most curiously, in 2011, the revered auction house Sotheby’s included a drawing by Nat Tate in a London sale. The work, titled Bridge 114 from Tate’s celebrate bridge series, was estimated at £3,000 to £5,000. Despite many feeling duped at the start, it seems the art world came around to embrace the tragic Nat Tate. There’s no telling where his name will pop up next.